Watch Your Language: Should Parents Censor Speech Around Children?

angry man yelling with words falling out of his mouth
Photo by George Rudy/ Shutterstock

How are we supposed to talk to kids without imprinting our harsh vocabulary on them? Mommybites explored this question on Facebook, asking parents what substitute curse words they use when kids are present. Answers ranged from “son of a motherless goat” and “what the chunk” to “sweet and sour chicken” and “holy blueberries!”

However, is it the responsibility of parents to shelter their kids from the “real world,” as reader Tara Matzig put it. Matzig shared a story of how her 2-year old called his 19-year-old brother a “douchebag.” ”At least he used it in context and his brother was in fact being a douchebag,” Matzig wrote, adding that her “kids are not sheltered from the ‘real world’ where not everywhere is a ‘safe space.’”

Context Matters When Using Curse Words In Front of Kids

Child psychologist Sarah Bren says context matters, noting that “there is a big difference between swearing when we stub our toe, using curse words to describe other people in anger, and directing swear words at our children when we are angry with them.” Bren affirms that the first scenario is “relatively benign,” however the other two circumstances can have “pretty profound consequences.” In essence, when a child hears their parent curse accidentally it may not affect the child’s language, but when parents use curse words as a constant presence in a household it may encourage the use of the language, and charge child aggression.

How Parents Shape Their Child’s Language Development

Children are impressionable beings, and parents are their role models for behavior and language development. “The building blocks of language development are being laid from birth onwards,” Bren tells us, meaning that the first words we speak to our children are automatically registered as important in a child’s development. From birth onwards, everything parents say in front of their children, every emotion attached to each word imprints on the child’s ability to understand language. Therefore, parents must be cautious as they shape their child’s language to not encourage an aggressive vernacular. 

How Language at Home Can Make Children More Aggressive

Children mirror their parents. When language is used as a weapon, children may become more aggressive themselves. Parents who use curse words in order to “parent” their child, actually end up creating a hostile environment. Especially when used in order to belittle or shame children, using profanity may hurt your child’s feelings and future development. This behavior, Bren warns, can be damaging to the trust and safety of the parent-child relationship and to the child’s relationships with others.

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What to Do If You Accidentally Curse In Front of Your Child

Don’t fret if you accidentally slip out a curse word in a fit of rage. Bren finds it best to instead have a conversation about the word and its usage in order to have “an honest conversation about a word,” thus demystifying it. An honest conversation is important to “honor [a] child’s intelligence and help them learn about the nuances of language and interpersonal dialogue,” Bren argues. Breaking down the stigma behind curse words makes the words less powerful and less likely for children to use them to harvest aggression. Treating your child as an intelligent being and explaining the use of curse words can actually lead to more effective language development and decisions.  

What children hear from their parents matters a lot. However, as imperfect beings, it would be unreasonable to expect parents to completely refrain from language slip-ups along the way of raising a child. Parents can turn these moments into positive teaching opportunities. 

“Being real, being human, and being honest are all significantly more educational and valuable to our children than censoring ourselves,” said Bren. Being genuine with children prompts them to be honest people as well. Full transparency encourages positive communication between parents and children and within their other relationships further in life. 
Parents can create an honest, engaging environment by allowing for positive communication and language-building skills for children. Next time, when your child makes a mistake, and you want to scream what the [email protected]!$, take a moment. Try these out instead: 

  • Cheese and Crackers!
  • What the Fork! 
  • Oh, Fudge! 
  • Motherlover!
  • Corn Nuts!
  • Son of a Monkey! 
  • Gosh Darn it! 

But, when clarity is not on your side and you do use the real thing, sit down with your child and explain the use of curse words, instead of pretending you didn’t say them. Being honest with your child encourages a healthy relationship with language and with you as parents. 

Let us know on our Instagram and Facebook pages what fake curse words you use!

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Savannah Prager joined the Mommybites team as an Editorial and Marketing/Social Media Intern. She is an International Relations major at New York University, with a passion for advocacy. Savannah has served as a magazine editor and has managed various social media accounts. She also interns with the NYCLU during the school year and loves to talk about anything social justice. In her free time, Savannah studies astrological birth charts.

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